Okay, hands up: how many of you have ever heard an Indigenous person describe Canada as “non-racist”? Or a person of Chinese descent? Or a South Asian? Or a Latino? Or a black person? You get the idea. The fact is, you haven’t: these folks and other people of colour have more than enough experience to prove the contrary.
The only Canadians who describe our country as “non-racist” are white people who are irritated by all the attention racism’s been getting lately and are on the defensive. And make no mistake: declarations of “non-racism” are nothing but defensive posturing, because there’s no such thing as “non-racism.” One is either racist or anti-racist. Make up your mind.
Of course, we whities have a lot to be defensive about. Our racist rep goes back to those first British and French colonials who landed on Turtle Island and began stealing, plundering, or otherwise claiming ownership of territory not theirs to take. Since then we’ve been wiping out Indigenous communities that stand in the way of development and, in general, mistreating non-white people in Canada who seek nothing more than equal access to the opportunity and harassment-free living we white folk have always taken for granted.
In more recent decades, Canada has passed human rights laws to redress inequality and issued formal apologies for historic injustices. We have institutionalized multiculturalism and open-door immigration. And yes, we have promoted our rich mosaic of Indigenous cultures. But Canada’s polite society is notoriously two-faced. On one hand, we’re good at apologizing for past outrages. But on the other, how sorry are we for impoverishing First Nations communities, depriving them of water and letting them rot? How sorry for doing next to nothing about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls? In our cities, how sorry for criminalizing black people by racially profiling them, often with fatal results? On our farms and in our factories, how sorry are we for failing to protect migrant workers, invariably non-white, from exploitation and abuse?
Then there’s anti-Asian racism, a special Canadian category all its own. Despite public education and library systems—even a museum dedicated to human rights —that have well documented racist treatment of Chinese, Japanese, and Indo Canadian peoples, what have we actually learned? All it took was a pandemic to wipe off the veneer of civility and expose the dark underbelly of anti-Asian bigotry in Canada. As I write, there has been no end to the ugly racist—and often misogynistic—attacks, typically committed in broad daylight, against Asian people presumed to be Chinese (their individual scapegoating as “the cause” of COVID-19 its own form of racism), and equally cowardly racist graffiti on Chinese landmarks.
If Canada were “non-racist,” Indigenous people and people of colour would not have to have fought for every right they’ve gained in this country since Confederation. If Canada were “non-racist,” it wouldn’t have taken post-modern discourses on culture and representation for non-white Canadians—pretty much invisible before the 80s and 90s—to appear more frequently, if not proportionately, in mainstream media renderings of Canadian history, society and culture.
Since we know these things to be true, why be defensive? Why not just admit our ancestors’ mistakes, learn from history and strive to do better? Why is it so hard for some of us white folks to take the cause of anti-racism seriously and make our own personal commitment to condemn bigotry? The answer is that a great number of white Canadians remain fearful of change and are threatened by the powerful new voices of non-white Canadians, especially the young. These particular white folks have their public mouthpiece in a legion of conservative, Angry White Men (AWM) of a certain age who continue to enjoy gainful employment at our mainstream broadcasters and newspapers.
One of these AWM recently declared Canada to be a “non-racist” country. I will not revisit the blatherings of Rex Murphy, a self-important blowhard I tend to pair with Conrad Black (two pompous windbags in love with their own prose who also happen to be their own biggest fans). If you’re curious, check out Murphy’s National Post colleague Vanmala Subramaniam’s response, or that of Canadaland’s Jonathan Goldsbie.
Remember those official apologies I mentioned earlier? Some of them—such as for Japanese internment and Indian residential schools—have occurred within the lifetimes of the victims and perpetrators, or extended generations of their families. This means that the racism which inspired these events, and the pain that resulted, are not only history but are still alive and lingering in the hearts and minds of their oldest witnesses. It means that white people, even if no longer grappling with our own implication in these events, are haunted by the culpability of recent ancestors. (Take it from me: grandson of a civil servant and housing expert who, after December 7, 1941, accepted an assignment from the MacKenzie-King government to help set up those internment camps.) It means that the mindset behind such racist events may not be completely extinguished; the suffering these events caused is still unresolved. It means that, to prevent such events from reoccurring, we must never, ever forget.
The problem moving forward is that racism in Canada is not confined to the serious bigots and white supremacists—including the countless police officers who have abused their power by murdering black and Indigenous people. It exists everywhere, most often casually. You could see it in some of the responses to the first round of George Floyd protests: people caring more about looting and businesses being destroyed than about justice for lives destroyed. (See NBA legend Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s essay in the LA Times for a good response to such wilful blindness.) You could see it in that tiresomely tone-deaf and ignorant response to #BlackLivesMatter, “all lives matter.” And you can still see it in the surprising number of Canadians who wag their fingers self-righteously at U.S. racism, as if our own backyard isn’t messy enough.
Those of us who acknowledge the reality of systemic racism in Canada feel a responsibility to acknowledge the fact of our white privilege and speak out against injustice. In the last few weeks the call has grown louder from black leaders everywhere, including double Giller Prize-winning novelist Esi Edugyan, for more white people to take the lead in the fight for social change. The emotional and physical toll of living with racism every day of their lives is already exhausting enough for black people; just as Indigenous people aren’t the ones who need to do the reconciling, black people should not be expected to do the hard work of teaching white folks about racism. It’s up to us to get up to speed.
If you want to be an ally, go forth with humility. Three years ago, following the Charlottesville demonstrations in response to white supremacist rallies, songwriter/storyteller Courtney Ariel offered six sobering tips on how to be a better ally. If you’re prepared for a deeper dive, there’s this working document for scaffolding anti-racism resources. There’s a lot to be learned.
As the growing number of demonstrations across North America and beyond indicates, the biggest challenge of anti-racism work right now is putting the brakes on police brutality against people of colour. A state of existence that has black people on both sides of the border afraid to go out at night for fear of being re-profiled and quite possibly shot dead, it’s a fear that Indigenous people in Canada know all too well: in the latest RCMP outrage, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam says the cops beat him up and manhandled his wife over an expired license plate.
So the talk has begun on alternatives to policing that will save black and Indigenous lives. One suggestion has been to defund the police in order to free up funding for services such as social workers, forensic scientists, doctors and researchers to respond to community needs when violent crimes have taken place. (When intervention is required, specialized rapid response could be used that dials down the weaponry while ramping up the negotiating tactics.) Or funding to create a new emergency service that connects people in crisis with unarmed mental health emergency services workers trained to provide care. In Indigenous communities, some First Nations have adopted “safety officers” as alternatives to the RCMP. Local First Nations officers who are part of the culture, these safety officers are “trained in everything from conflict resolution, intergenerational trauma and mental-health issues to critical incident stress management and bylaw interpretation.” Unlike the police, safety officers don’t carry guns or lay charges, and they are trusted and respected by the community.
Could this be a moment of change? Or will the protests die down and business as usual take hold once again? One hopes the momentum has shifted toward the former. But as usual, the hardest minds to change will be at the top.